By Brian Ives
40 years ago this week, Led Zeppelin released their live album, ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ which also served as the soundtrack to their concert film of the same name. For years, it was their only legitimate live release.
If you grew up in the ’80s, the music landscape was very different than what it is today. Not just stylistically, although it is certainly is very different. But structurally; it’s not just that there were less ways to hear music, there wasn’t as much information about the music that you loved, particularly if it was older music. It was also tough to afford all of the music that you wanted from the bands that you liked. LPs and cassettes were expensive! It was hard to figure out which albums were good and which weren’t. You’d generally start with a greatest hits album.
Led Zeppelin, of course, weren’t like other bands, and had never released any kind of compilation until their self-titled box set in 1990 (an actual “best-of” wouldn’t be released until 1999). But a good way to get a record with all the songs that you liked was to pick up a live album. After all, live versions of songs were pretty close to the originals, just with added applause and maybe a extra guitar or drum solo thrown in.
The Song Remains the Same had three of the songs that were (and still are) always on the radio: “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven.” That was good enough for me, it was my second Zeppelin album after the fourth one.
I was in for a big surprise.
The Song Remains the Same starts with “Rock and Roll,” which, in fact, wasn’t too different from the studio version. But it was clear that Robert Plant saw the recorded versions of Zeppelin’s songs as a guideline, not something to be mimicked.
From there, they went into “Celebration Day,” a song I wasn’t that familiar with; I hadn’t gotten Led Zeppelin III yet: I, II and In Through the Out Door were higher up on my rock and roll shopping list. Still, the song was an amazing rush of excitement. How had I missed this? Side 1 also had the title track and “The Rain Song.” I was sort of familiar with them, but the live versions both sounded way more wild than the versions I knew. Jimmy Page was a master producer, but once the records were recorded, it was clear that, like Plant, he didn’t worry much about reproducing the records exactly.
It was side 2 that really threw me for a loop. It had just one song: “Dazed and Confused.” I looked at the LP and it said that the song lasted for more than twenty-six minutes. Some of my favorite bands (like Rush and Yes) had really long songs. But I’d heard the studio version of “Dazed and Confused,” it was maybe one third that length. How did they stretch it out for nearly a half hour?
This was my introduction to long jamming. I’m not neccesarily advocating the idea of drawing out a single song for a half hour. Besides, a good rule of thumb is: just because Led Zeppelin can pull something off, doesn’t mean that anyone else could, or should, try it. But it was for me a gateway to jazz and more “open” forms of music that didn’t have to fit into set boundaries and restraints.
Side 3 had “No Quarter,” and everyone’s favorite, “Stairway.” A beautiful studio production, this live version had a way more rough and raw sound, live. For one thing, there were no acoustic guitars. For another, Robert Plant was adding words. I mean, “Does anybody remember laughter?” What was that? Maybe he meant that, as rock bands were becoming multi-million dollar arena headlining machines, some of the fun was being lost. Or maybe it was just something that sounded cool to him. But it was amazing to me that they’d stretch, alter and change the song that was generally accepted as their masterpiece. And add words to something that everyone thought they knew the words to.
Side 4 was, maybe, the wildest: John Bonham’s drums on “Moby Dick” were even more insane than on the record. And the closing song, “Whole Lotta Love,” nearly tripled its 5:30 time from the album version. Truth be told, I like the studio version better. But that said, the idea that they could take an iconic song like that. and have their way with it, was exciting.
I listened to the album over and over. Years later, in 2007, it was reissued with bonus tracks.
But I found it a bit jarring – and still do – to hear “Celebration Day” go into “Black Dog,” instead of “The Song Remains the Same.” Ironically, I was so used the version of the album that I knew that at first, it was hard to get used to the treasure trove of extra songs.
Zeppelin has released a number of other live recordings through the years — BBC Sessions and How the West Was Won — that are probably better recordings. But this one remains my favorite, probably for sentimental reasons. And for the lesson that it taught me: even if the song remains the same, you can always play it a different way.